Alex Salmond, Showbiz and whatever happened to the politics of optimism?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 16th 2017

All political leaders have a certain limited shelf life. If they are very successful and lucky they win elections, hold power and make decisions, but the public eventually grow tired and wary of their constant public presence.

The twilight years and long goodbyes of the likes of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ted Heath and his thirty year grudge with Thatcher, are all examples of how difficult many find the transition. Thatcher, whatever your political views of her, won three elections in a row, and after her party overthrew her, pined for the call to return. Blair, despite his millions and acclaim from various despots, yearns for domestic political influence and has, until the June election, been making plans for a new pro-EU centrist party – which might now be off or still on.

The SNP and Scottish nationalism has played a huge part in our recent history and central to this has been Alex Salmond who led the party over two periods and twenty years: 1990-2000 and 2004 and 2014.

There are numerous achievements to his leadership in changing the SNP and Scotland permanently. First, he professionalised how the SNP conducted itself and politics, bringing a discipline and self-denying ordinance. The SNP became a party which looked outward and to win – a shift from the 1980s inward obsessions (and also with Scottish Labour’s lack of extrovert interest in winning floating voters at the time).

Second, Salmond contributed enormously to the SNP’s historic victories of 2007 and 2011: providing minority and then majority government. It bears reminding that until 2007 the SNP had never in their history won a national election. Suddenly everything changed and Salmond presided (despite all the predictions from his opponents) over competent, coherent government that did things and had ambitions.

Third, the 2011 victory brought with it the independence referendum. This was the SNP’s moment in the sun, talking and campaigning about their favourite subject. Under-estimated from the start, with Labour politicians calculating they could win 70:30 and kill the constitutional issue forever, independence came closer to winning than anyone thought at the outset. One result was that the idea of independence (different from the Salmond compromise version), came in from the cold, was normalised, and won a large part of the argument. Anyone who thinks otherwise should note how the terms of debate have totally changed post-2014.

Salmond over this period showed a sense of many of the important things which make for successful politicians: tactical agility combined with a focus on the ultimate prize, leading while listening to those around him at times, and being prepared to take calculated risks such as going for one question in the 2014 referendum.

One aspect of this is that Salmond consciously changed how he did politics to win and be more effective. In the period 2006-7 he changed the tone of his leadership and that of the SNP, embracing the ideas of positive psychology associated with Martin Seligman and taking on board the input of the RED consultancy.

This was because Salmond listened to his team who showed him video evidence of how he often won the immediate argument with opponents, but lost the bigger discussion by being petty, making partisan points or over-emphasising the negative of the other side.

As a result, Salmond and the SNP shifted to embrace a politics of optimism, which also informed Yes Scotland’s 2014 campaign strategy. Rather than previously as the SNP and Salmond had done for years going on about the negative consequences of Scotland held back in the union, and gripping about it, or in the words of their opponents, accentuating the politics of grievance, the SNP stressed the positive aspects of a self-governing, independent nation. The shift undoubtedly contributed to the 2007 victory, wrong-footed Labour, and translated into how the SNP governed in its early days in office.

There were times when Salmond forgot his own script, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 banking crash, where Salmond had been as close to Fred Goodwin, then head of RBS, as Gordon Brown. His first instincts in the crash was to defend Goodwin from criticism, but he soon refound his voice, and fought the 2011 campaign with a message homed from the aspirational, positive psychology book.

This brings us to the Alex Salmond from post-2014 to the present. At the moment Salmond is playing to sell out shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and occasionally going off script taking pot shots at the SNP leadership and by implication his successor, Nicola Sturgeon.

Salmond is a public performer. He loves attention, adulation, the applause and validation that comes with it. He likes adopting the persona of the cheeky chappie, who can be witty, make humorous one-liners, and push the boundaries of what is permissible, embracing in the last few days the sort of innuendo which was widespread in ‘Carry on’ films and up until the 1970s. His self-image is one of ‘hail fellow, well met’, but like most people he is more complex and multi-dimensional than how he sees himself: being extrovert, sociable, insightful, but also phenomenally thin-skinned (as his subsequent comments on the 2014 independence referendum defeats have shown).

It isn’t an accident that no one has yet got the summation of Salmond the man and his character; despite him being in public life since the early 1980s and having made endless pronouncements. Salmond is a strange and paradoxical mixture. In part he is a story of modern Scotland: of growing up in ordinary circumstances in a council house in Linlithgow, and also someone who has contributed to making us the society and nation we are today.

But there is also something of an older Scotland in him. There is the pursuit of vendettas against various people in public – the BBC’s Nick Robinson being just one of many examples. In Salmond’s persona, and how he presents himself, there is also something of the Scotland of the past: of the charming, but cankerous uncle who dresses in dodgy blazers and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of. And you certainly don’t want to give them permission to bore on about their favourite non-political subjects: Hearts FC, horse racing or golf.

This weekend’s latest interventions were that independence is achievable in four years – by 2021. That’s within the terms of this Scottish Parliament and Westminster – should the latter last its full five-year term. Leaving aside the opposition of Theresa May or whoever is UK Prime Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that this timescale isn’t going to happen.

Then there were comments about the former SNP MP Michelle Thomson with Salmond suggesting she was the subject of a mainstream media witch hunt which occurred because of their ‘general badness’ and ‘lack of journalistic standards’. This ignored that the moment allegations became public the SNP leadership acted and withdrew the whip. Salmond’s comments gave him a double hit: attacking the media and firing a shot across the bows of Sturgeon’s leadership.

What is to be made of all of the above behaviour? For a start Salmond in his second stage as a former leader is behaving very differently from how he did after he resigned in 2000 and John Swinney became leader. Then he gave unqualified loyalty and showed a discipline absent now.

The Salmond of post-2014 consistently undermines and violates the credo he embraced a decade ago: to sing the virtues of an independent Scotland with an optimism and positivity, and to focus on winning the bigger arguments, not the small tactical ones.

In the last three years, the SNP have begun to show the passing of time in office, a track record with shortcomings become more evident, and the reality to even the most ardent Yes supporters that Nicola Sturgeon does not walk on water, and that ‘Red Nicola’ was a figment of overactive minds.

Salmond’s response to this has been to dwell on his favourite moments in the sun: the 2014 campaign and how victory was snatched from him by a band of desperados including the BBC and the Daily Record’s ‘Vow’. He could have chosen a very different path: where he collated and gave his name to strategic work on independence, the economics, policy ideas for after the big day, and the international dimension. That would have been work worthy of the former leader, and it needs desperately done by someone.

It seems likely we haven’t seen the last of Alex Salmond. He is only 62. There seems every chance his Gordon defeat isn’t the last we will see of him in an election. And it is highly probable that given the sold out shows at the Assembly Rooms for ‘Alex Salmond Unleashed: The Politics of Fun, Friends and Freedom’, he will be back again in Edinburgh next year and the year after.

At least Salmond hasn’t fallen to the grotesque levels of three times UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who is now reported to be the subject of a £60 million Holywood blockbuster based on Arron Banks’ memoir, ‘The Bad Boys of Brexit’. But other role models and avenues must be available.

Salmond has contributed richly to the political commonweal that is Scotland, putting on us on the political map globally, and making the British political establishment quiver.

Surely at his current age, he has more ambition and drive than becoming a cult figure for the independence true believers who turn out to his show at the Fringe? He could seek advice from former First Ministers Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell but neither have set the heather afire in office or since. Then there is the example of 93-year-old national treasure Nicholas Parsons appearing at Edinburgh this year (after coming to the first Festival in 1947).

Showbiz involves knowing when to leave them wanting more, and politics while not quite the same, operates by similar principles. Salmond needs to leave the showbiz stage, and find a new role more fitting for his talents and status.